Hong Kong's Central Street Market is in danger of disappearing. One of the few remaining open-air wet markets in central Hong Kong, the Central Street Market dates back to 1841. Proponents of the market don't argue for leaving it as it is, but for preserving it intelligently and sensitively, keeping in mind its historic and cultural value.
We love Asian wet markets and, if you're a regular reader of this site, you probably do too. All it takes is a quick clickety-click over here to access the petition (on the righthand sidebar), sign it, and send it. Be sure to note your city. It doesn't hurt if the Hong Kong development authorities know that potential tourists care about this historical treasure, one of the few left in Hong Kong.
Well, this is pretty weird. We used to read the Shanghai Daily, when we lived in that city-under-construction back in the mid-90s.
I'm quoted in an article on fermented bean curd - but described as a 'freelance writer living in China'. It would have been nice if the reporter had referenced EatingAsia and given a link, rather than giving the impression she'd interviewed me when she hadn't, and then getting her facts wrong to boot. It also would have been nice if she'd placed the other tidbits she lifted from a certain EatingAsia post (one of my personal faves, by the way) inside quotation marks, rather than giving the impression they're her own words.
I mean, c'mon. You're a Chinese person living in China writing about a Chinese food ingredient. Do your own research! How lazy can you get??!!
Thank you, Shanghai Daily. NOT! I'm annoyed.
March 19: For an update, and the editor's response to my email, see comments below.
That's not our opinion. But it's something we've heard again and again from various quarters over the last couple of months, as we've prepared for this trip. We know it's not the truth, and you do too, if you've had even a cursory look at this book (pictured above), or visited this popular food blog.
We're in Manila, and we'll be here for 10 days (yes, Manila! a city that invariably invokes a wrinkled nose when mentioned), traversing the city and daytripping beyond it, looking for the best that the Philippine kitchen has to offer. We've hooked up with a food-loving Filipino who's travelled to every province in this country and lived in several of them, who promises to be an excellent guide (and advisor for the further explorations here that we're planning). Thanks to a certain generous EatingAsia reader, we're meeting with local chowhounds - professional and otherwise - whose work we admire. We expect this to be one excellent trip, with lots of fantastic food finds. We know there's gold here, and we don't expect to have to dig much to find it.
While this is my first visit to the Philippines, it's a bit of a homecoming for Dave, who got his initial taste of Asia a couple of (ahem) decades ago when he lived here for 6 months. Dave wasn't as food-focused then as he is now (he remembers pancit, balut, buko pie, and adobo, and that's about it), and has only the vaguest remembrances of local flavors. So it should be interesting to see how his impression of the local fare we partake of over the coming days compares with his memories.
We'll be be back in a week and a half with plenty of tales of Filipino tastiness. Until then, Selamat Makan (Happy Eating!)
At the pooja ('pooja' means prayers, but is also used generically to refer to an Indian religious ceremony) we met a local photographer who'd been hired by the Mariamman Temple to document the event. He led us up to a second floor balcony from where we got a bird's-eye-view (and some nice shots) of the devotees standing in a crowd, waiting to hand over their sembu of milk.
Dave continued to snap away long after he'd finished, so the two of us got to talking about - what else? - food. He piqued my interest with raves about a 'delicious, most refreshing' drink called moru. It's served after a pooja, free to devotees and attendees.(It's also taken just any old time, to refresh and/or aid digestion.)
After the pooja we encountered a vendor outside Mariamman temple's gate - plenty of sweet treats but no refreshing beverage. But a stall just up the street was mobbed with red-clad devotees reaching for styrofoam cups. I wormed my way into the crowd, but hesitated to grab a serving for myself; these women had just walked five kilometers barefoot, carrying pots of milk on their heads, and then stood in the temple's sweltering inner courtyard for an hour or two, waiting to deliver their offerings. I was tired and awfully thirsty, but deserving of a free cup of moru? I didn't think so.
A middle-aged lady to my rear gently pushed me forward. 'It's moru. Try it!' she urged.
She didn't have to push twice.
Moru is next to nothing - at its most basic, a blend of a little yogurt, lots of water, and salt, with a few curry leaves added for flavor - a super-thinned out salt lassi. But an incredibly, scrumptiously thirst-quenching one.
It's the salt, of course, which in small doses is just the thing when dehydration sets in (think Gatorade and other sports drinks).
It's also the way moru is - or should be - served: colder than a penguin's patooty. Behind the stall it was dipped from mammoth stainless steel vats (top photo), each holding a block of ice about 2 feet wide and a foot or so thick. Before pouring it into red plastic pitchers the moru minder 'pulled' the liquid again and again, bringing it up high before letting it fall it over the ice. By the time it was portioned into cups the moru was cold enough to induce an ice cream headache, if downed too quickly.
Yet moru's perfect thirst-quenching quality is derived from more than salt and cold. I think it's the curry leaves. In this simple preparation they lend a subtle grassy, vegetal flavor (there's nothing 'curried' tasting about moru) that, combined with the salt and the bit of body lent by the yogurt, makes a swallow of the drink not only refreshing, but substantively reviving. It's food (or at least it tastes like food) - nourishment, so to speak - in the form of a beverage as light as water.
For days after the pooja I dreamt about moru, wondering if it would taste as good if my throat wasn't parched. So, I whipped up a batch at home. Two batches, to be exact, because my bahasa Malaysia teacher (who happens to be Punjabi) told me that some moru makers like to tarka (let 'pop' in a hot pan wiped with the teeniest bit of oil) the curry leaves - along with fresh chile, onion, and black mustard seeds - before adding them to the liquid.
After comparing the two versions - basic moru and pretty simple moru - I can't decide which I like best. I do know, however, that it's essential to allow the moru to mellow in the fridge for at least six hours (overnight is best), and to serve it well chilled in an ice-free glass. I stole sips from my moru batches before and between meals, morning, noon, and evening. Conclusion: dying of thirst or not, this is one beautiful beverage.
2 large servings
Don't go crazy with the extra ingredients, if you opt to use them. The chile shouldn't burn and the onion shouldn't leave you burping. Moru should be salty, but if you're not using premium salt - kosher or sea or otherwise - reduce the amount by half to start, then add to taste. Flavoruful, full-fat yogurt is a must, to give a bit of body to what is already a very diluted beverage.
2 Tbsp delicious plain, full-fat yogurt
2 tsp salt
2 cups room temperature water
10 fresh or frozen curry leaves (or to taste)
vegetable or mustard oil
a slice or two of green or red chile, seeds removed if it's very hot
a small piece (1-inch) of onion
2 generous pinches of black mustard seeds
1. Put the yogurt, salt, and water into the jar of a blender and mix until the salt is dissolved. Pour into a pitcher.
2. Add curry leaves and stir.
(Or: wipe a small pan with oil - leaving no more than the thinnest film - and add the curry leaves, chile, onion, and mustard seeds. Place the pan over medium heat and allow to cook just until you can smell the ingredients and a few of the mustard seeds have popped. Do not allow the ingredients to brown. Remove from pan and add to the moru; stir.)
3. Refrigerate for at least six hours or, preferably, overnight.
4. Strain out the solids, if you wish. Reintegrate the yogurt and water (they will have separated) with whisk. Serve in chilled glasses.
For the foreigner, this is what travel in much of urban Asia is: peering beyond the unsightful, coming to grips with the dirt and the smog, picking out the interest from the monotony, separating the individuals from the crowd, the flash of color from the black and grey and white. Getting past first impressions ("Ugly! Noisy! Smelly!"). Going against the instinct that advises sheltering in a cool, quiet, travellers' cafe. Putting oneself out there. Prying open the oyster to find the pearl.
A sense of humor helps. They may belch black clouds at thigh level but buses sport names that are priceless; the Bangkok tout with tall tales of sparkling gems at bargain prices (does anyone really fall for this scam?) elicits a chuckle and a roll of the eyes. One can only admire the persistence of the Saigon street salesman trying to peddle sunglasses to sunglassed tourists.
A special interest focuses the eye. The architecture-obsessed stroller rarely watches his feet, focusing eyes straight ahead and up instead, searching for the one shuttered shophouse surviving amongst a block of dull concrete boxes. Textile afficianados revel in the riot of vibrantly hued and richly pattterned batik, songket, and ikat that decorate many of southeast Asia's streets. Food-focused travelers, ever on the alert for the unknown nibble, approach the inhospitable Asian urban landscape as if on a treasure hunt. For us chaos is good; the most desirable destinations will always be those where snacks and meals can still be had streetside.
Colombo has all this. Yet somehow, three days after we'd arrived, we were still looking for a reason to like the place.
It may have been the heavy air. We were travelling in May, the city's second wettest month, and five minutes on the hoof saw our shirts stuck to our backs. Perhaps it was the city's confusing layout. Except for a two block-wide area paralleling the waterfront there's little discernible order to Colombo's sprawl. Leafy sidestreets dotted with pretty red tile-roofed Dutch bungalows give way without warning to mean, exhaust-fogged streets absent of sidewalks; some parts of the city, scarred from the 1983 riots, resemble pre-cease fire Beirut. We were targeted by hustlers at every turn, and there was no humor or gentle ribbing in their approach. In spite of a couple of excellent restaurant meals we couldn't get a bead on the local cuisine, not even its street food. Even the vendors that materialized at dusk seaside, on the sprawling cricket green fronting the historic Galle Face Hotel, offered little to pique our interest.
On our last afternoon we visited the Dutch Period Museum, a beautiful stuccoed building that, in the 17th century, served as the Dutch governor's residence before it was transformed into a seminary, and then a military hospital, and finally a post office. High ceilings and thick walls keep the museum's interior cool and muffle traffic noise. We spent a couple of hours poring over its exhibits, admiring the colonial furniture housed on its second floor, and lingering in the green and shady courtyard.
Afterwards, lacking both transport and a map, we wandered east and then, I think, north. Twenty sweaty minutes later we came to an early 20th-century church fronted by trucks piled high with produce, parked amidst mounds of rotting vegetal refuse - the loading 'dock' for a wholesale market.
We followed the roughly U-shaped road extending to the right, from the front of the church. Most of the market's stalls were closed, but a few small retail vendors - Tamils to a one - cried out to late-in-the-day shoppers. Dave pulled out his camera, we engaged a few hawkers, and suddenly Colombo clicked for us.
Small, ragged, and far from bustling, this market just barely qualified as picturesque. Though the produce was lovingly arranged in gorgeous displays we saw nothing unfamiliar (and thus titillating), nothing that we hadn't seen before at other markets in other tropical Asian countries.
Still, whatever it's name (I've not been able to locate it on a map), this market rates among my Top Ten. It came along - or we did - in the nick of time, welcoming us just as we were beginning to doubt whatever it was that had prompted us to head to Sri Lanka in the first place. A week later we returned home to Saigon regretting that we'd not had more time on that lush teardrop-shaped island.
Heading west from the market, towards the ocean and Colombo's landmark lighthouse, we traversed Sea Street, a specialist lane of goldsmiths. Shopkeepers pursued us aggressively, a few even following us a quarter of the way down the block. It didn't annoy as it might have a few hours before. Near the end of the street we stopped at a small open shopfront for bottled water. We chatted with the gregarious owner, mopped our faces with the napkins he offered, and downed a few Indian sweets. "We like this town," we agreed. We'd found the pearl.
Colombo wholesale (and small retail) food market, somewhere northeast of the Dutch Period Museum, perhaps near the junction of Sea Street and Abdul Cader (Sea Beach) Roads. Mornings, presumably.
In the spring of 1998, when we were living in Shanghai, Dave and I spent two weeks in Bhutan. It was a splurge, meant to be our "last hurrah" in Asia before we returned to the US later in the year for good (or so we thought at the time).
Travelling by car along Bhutan's one road, we gawped at the magnificent, nearly untouched mountain landscape
dotted with majestic dzong (half administrative buildings-half monasteries).
We caught a few archery matches (it's the national sport),
met plenty of friendly locals,
noticed, after three or four days, that most of the country's traditional stone and wood houses are decorated with a phallus or two,
and marvelled that in this world there still existed a place that kept beat to such a leisurely rhythm.
In Bumthang, a Wild West sort of town set deep in an impossibly green, fertile valley, we joined Bhutanese villagers who journeyed for miles, mostly on foot and dressed in their finest clothes,
for a spectacular three-day Tibetan Buddhist festival. After two days of music and dances, performed by monks resident at the hilltop dzong where it was held,
the festival culminated in a feverishly emotional mass blessing in which attendees were fed pieces of dough representing a demon who, on the festival's second day, had been vanquished and killed by the gods.
What we did not do in Bhutan, unfortunately, was find a whole lot of deliciousness. Most towns didn't have restaurants, so we were obliged to take meals in our hotel with other tourists. Always served buffet-style (a particular dislike of mine), lunches and dinners generally consisted of the sort of food Bhutanese tourism officials must have imagined foreigners preferred to eat: bland, overcooked, and often pseudo-Chinese.
There were a few bright spots. After pestering our guide (required for all tourists at the time, and probably still) for seven days straight we finally scored a breakfast not of fluffy, tasteless toast and greasy scrambled eggs, but of Bhutanese red rice porridge - thick and creamy like congee, but flavored with savory smoked pork hock, zippy dried red chilies, and numbing ground Sichuan peppercorn. In Bumthang, we found local, freshly made apple cider, a wonderfully hoppy and refreshing microbrew, and - thanks to the presence of a Swiss-owned dairy farm - richly milky tomato and cheese tarts.
On our third night we tried ema daji, a Bhutanese dish of plump green jalapeno-like chiles in a thin cheese sauce. Fantastically fiery chili heat balanced by creamy, mild-flavored cheese - just the sort of flavorful, highly spiced break we needed from gloppy hot and sour pork and stir-fried mystery meat with cashews. We spooned it up with nutty Bhutanese red rice that night, and the next, when it showed up again on the buffet table. And then the next several nights as well ... until we were so sick of the darned stuff just the sight of it could turn our stomachs.
By the time we left Bhutan ema daji was a bad dream, a black spot on our otherwise wonderful trip to Bhutan. I buried it deep in my subconscious where it slept soundly ... until Reid at Ono Kine Grindz and Alan at maona announced a Virtual Vacation one-off MeMe.
When I read the assignment - to share the recipe for a dish sampled on holiday - ema daji popped into my head. Wondering if eight years had cured me of my phobia I cooked up a batch, and found it to be - as scrumptious as the first time I tasted it. Many thanks to Reid and Alan for inspiring me to reinvestigate this altogether ambrosial dish. The single smear on my memories of Bhutan is wiped clean.
UPDATE, February 22: I won! I do believe it's the first time I've won anything in my life. My prize? A boxload of edible Hawaiian swag. I'll be blogging it.
Ema Daji (Bhutanese Chiles 'n Cheese)
This recipe is adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's "Mangoes & Curry Leaves" . They call it "Chile-Hot Bhutanese Cheese Curry" and include tomatoes, which I've omittted, because I never encountered them in the versions of the dish I sampled (or the ones I avoided) in Bhutan. Ema daji is all about fire (the chiles) and fire extinguisher (the dairy). I could swear the chiles used in Bhutan are jalapenos or a variation thereof, but you can use any kind you like. Go ahead and tone down the heat with a milder chile if you must, but do use a flavorful one (no plain green bell peppers!). If your fresh chiles aren't spicy enough, add cayenne with the cheese.
Outside of big towns where fresh, mild cheese can be bought at the market, Bhutanese cooks used Indian canned cheese. Alford and Duguid suggest feta and I found it to be an excellent substitute; the brining lends the finished product a sort of gamey aroma which seems right. Other possibilities are farmer's cheese, a Mexican cheese like queso fresco, or haloumi, if it's not too salty. Don't go the route of cheddar - the cheese should be mild enough that the taste of the chilies comes through.
The final result, which is soupy, is best served warm rather than hot, with Bhutanese red rice. Brown rice would work well too. A simple stir-fried green vegetable or a mound of golden oven-roasted carrots with cumin would round out the meal nicely. This is sublime comfort food that warms you up from the inside.
1 1/2 cups of water
heaped 3/4 cup of chiles that have been cut into 1 to 2-inch lengths (deseeded or not - its' up to you)
1 large onion, cut in half vertically and then sliced into then half circles
2 tsp. vegetable oil
5 plump cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped or mashed to a paste
250 grams feta or other mild, non-melting cheese
salt, if needed
a handful of fresh coriander leaves, torn into small pieces
Bring the water to a boil in a medium pan and add the chiles, onion, and oil. Cover, reduce heat to a strong simmer, and cook for about 15 mins.
Add the garlic and return to a boil, reduce heat again and simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the garlic and chiles are soft.
Stir in the cheese and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir once, then cover and set aside for 10 mins.
Taste and add salt if needed. Serve sprinkled with a few bits of coriander leaf.